Why We Draw, Paint and Photograph

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 26, 2015

I’m taking a community education course in beginning drawing and it’s making me think about why we draw, paint and photograph. I took the course to do something with a friend and learn a few drawing skills, but the class is making me contemplate the nature of art. Most people now carry a camera with them at all times because of smartphones. Why learn to sketch, when a click of the camera can capture any image far easier? Yet, before cameras, why did we want to draw what we saw? The urge goes back to our earliest days as cave dwellers. Did drawing skills precede language skills? Often, whenever we want to explain something complicated to another person, we draw a picture. The hot new trend in journalism is infographics. And, there’s that old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

cave art

My efforts to draw what I see has been extremely frustrating so far. I can draw a table that allows someone else to say, “Hey, that’s a table.” What frustrates me is I can’t accurately draw the table I see. I know I can’t become a human camera, but I do want to sketch with a level of accuracy that teaches me to see the abundance of details I’m currently ignoring. When I think about art, I wonder if I’m missing the point. Until we had cameras, artists strove to accurately record reality. Paintings were physical memories of what they saw. Artists also did more. They tell stories and create beauty. And, of course, they wanted to make a living, and maybe even become famous. Since I don’t need to earn money from drawing, nor do I care about fame, that leaves me with beauty, story and memory.

1024px-Botticelli-primavera

Right now I’m struggling to make smudges on paper that capture what I see. I’m picking objects that look easy to draw. But eventually I’ll want to record something I really want to remember, and something that I’m seeing in a more powerful way than how I look at things now. Ultimately though, I want to create something that’s beautiful. That’s the special quality of art. Art creates something that doesn’t exist in nature but competes with nature for beauty.

Right now I have absolutely no idea of how to create something new and beautiful, but I get the feeling that’s where this path leads. My teacher seems to know that’s where we need to go, but also knows we’re going to quickly get lost, and give up. Most people are artists when they are kids, but they lose their way. Maybe when we get old, we try to return to that way of looking at the world, like when we were young.

Gustave_Caillebotte_-_Paris_Street;_Rainy_Day_-_Google_Art_Project

I doubt I’ll ever become an artist, or even create something beautiful, but that doesn’t matter. Trying teaches me about the nature of art more than just admiring works in a gallery or studying art history courses. It’s like programming computers, there’s lots of procedures, subroutines and techniques to learn. There are tools to master, and coding languages to memorize. I’m surprised by how many technical tricks are involved in drawing. Talent might be involved, and it might not either. My guess is it’s mostly practice and work, and picking up skills and tricks from other artists.

Anyone can draw a picture or snap a photograph. It’s the why that matters. What do we want to remember, what story do we have to tell, can we capture beauty we discover in reality, or can we add something beauty to reality? I hope I can develop a daily habit of drawing, and it become a routine like exercising. It’s really hard to start doing something totally new late in life, but I think it will be good for me. Just the little effort I’ve put out for this class hurts my brain in a way that lets me know how artistically out of shape I am, and how artistically fit some of my friends are in comparison.

modern_art_by_dorianoart-d483eet

I use John’s Background Switcher to display random photography as wallpaper on my desktop. Every ten minutes I get a new scene capturing a beautiful instant from somewhere in the world. These photos are memories, stories and beauty. I’m astounded by the artistic visions that photographers find, often in locations other people would call ugly. Other times I have John’s Background Switcher randomly go through famous paintings. Every ten minutes I’m reminded of the amazing diversity of what’s possible to imagine that’s not in reality. These paintings and photos transcend time and space, and they tell a relentless story.

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5 thoughts on “Why We Draw, Paint and Photograph”

  1. Well, in Western art – painting itself changed dramatically when the camera came along. Artists started doing a lot more impressionist stuff and then that took off. Now both are considered forms of art – you just do different things.

    Second – the more detailed rock paintings are usually the older ones and as time went on they became more stylized, more formatted until they worked into hieroglyphics.

    And finally, it seems to me that different artists in and at different times have painted and created art for different reasons – it’s mostly communication though – even if it’s just “talking to yourself.” –

    In the 14th and 15th century (pre-camera) art works were documentations of weddings and the like. And artworks were often used to give glory to some kind of religion – but now it was also often a communication of feelings – not so true of medieval art. Some Renaissance artists were simply day labor but others worked experimentally. There was Giotto with perspective and Michelangelo with the human form and Rembrandt with light, and Van Eyck with pigments – all working toward more realism of course.

    Today I think we’re still hung up on “what’s new,” maybe getting over it a bit. Some artists want to shock, some want to sell pretty pictures, and others just want to see what they can do with a combination of pigment and “canvas” and lines making shapes. ??

  2. I went to art school as an adult and ever since I look at things completely different than before. My vision on art completely changed. I did have no talent at all for drawing and painting but I got there in the end and I even graduated so I know that when you hang in there you will make pretty things you’ll be proud off. Tip, never ever compare someone elses work with yours as you never know what background that person has. Keep all your drawing/paintings how ugly you think they are and look at them after a year, 2 years and you will see the difference !!! Have fun !!!

  3. Do a google images search sometime for “Gil Elvgren models”. Seems Elvgren usually took “sketch photos” of live models and then translated that into his commercial pinup art (illustrators like N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell often did the same). Often I think the photographed women are actually more attractive than the idealized pinup, but it’s interesting to see the comparison and the stylization involved.

    1. I agree, the real models are often more attractive, but it’s interesting to see where he copied directly from the model, like the shininess of their knees, etc. That’s very interesting to see how he didn’t try to make his paintings perfectly real.

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